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Posted: March 18, 2009

The future of wind and solar energy: How big and how soon?

Green energy focus of Sustainable Opportunities Summit

Dan Ray

At about 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, a 300-kilowatt solar photovoltaic, aka PV, system officially came online from the roof of the Colorado Convention Center. Moments later, a panel of renewable energy industry leaders were discussing the short- and long-term futures of such technologies before a crowd of nearly 200, just as the first electrons from that system began streaming into the building – powering some of the lighting, the ventilation systems and the visual aids.

The Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver was the site of the Fourth Annual Sustainable Opportunities Summit, March 17-19. This year’s theme, “Global Sustainability: The New Bottom Line,” was being carried by several dozen notable speakers – including Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

Speakers and summit attendees alike crowded into an undersized anteroom Wednesday morning to hear esteemed panel members John Hereford, Chris Mone, Michael Peck and Andy Taylor – all leaders in renewable energy business – grapple with the two huge questions surrounding the future of wind and solar energy: How big and how soon?

“We just installed a 300-kilowatt PV array on the roof of this building,” said Hereford, founder and principal of Hereford Capital Advisors, a Denver-based management and consulting firm dealing heavily in renewable energy projects. “At least part of the energy we’re using right now is coming from that.”

Despite the accomplishment, Hereford warned that many hurdles must be overcome if wind and solar energy resources are going to occupy more than a small fraction of our nation’s overall energy portfolio. After all, even though a 300-kilowatt solar system is a step in the right direction – it is about enough to power 100 typical Colorado homes – it is only enough to quench a tiny portion of the Convention Center’s total electric thirst.

“Financing, right now, is the single biggest bottleneck to a wider and more thorough development of renewable energy,” he said.

Still, there are some signs that this bottleneck may be diminishing, particularly with the passage of the recent federal economic stimulus package, which targets wind and solar technologies specifically, Hereford said.

“There are particular parts of the stimulus bill that we’re very optimistic about,” he said. “But what we need is tax-advantage driven investing, and there’s only a small group of experts in this field right now.”

Other panel members echoed Hereford’s observations.

“The biggest problem with a modern wind project is the upfront capital cost,” said Mone, business development manager with Vestas Wind’s U.S. office, based in Portland, Ore.

Small-scale projects, such as rooftop PV systems, face problems of their own, but big, utility-scale projects require negotiating more daunting matters, such as transmission and energy storage, which may be many years away, he said. 

“It’s great that we put solar panels on the roof of the Convention Center, but we’re not going to put a giant wind turbine in the middle of downtown Denver,” Mone said. The future may be in distributed generation and an entirely new national grid system, he said.

National policies may be needed to lead the way to a more sustainable energy system, said Taylor of international solar company BrightSource Energy. “A national portfolio standard for renewable energy will definitely help wind and may help solar as well,” he said.

A number of the panel members underscored that an advantage of renewable energies is simply their image; the public wants to see wind and solar, and this is driving a lot of demand.

However, in the long-term, if these technologies are going to help modern civilization derive as much as 20 percent of its electricity from clean sources, then fast, decisive and drastic actions may be required, said Peck, founder of Washington D.C.-based MAPA Group. “At the end of the day, utilities are going to be the real customers,” he said. “And utilities love reliability and they hate uncertainty.

“We’re simply going to need increased professionalism with how wind farms are developed and operated,” Peck said. Most important to keep in mind is that this is a new business paradigm, and the communities with all of the wind and solar resources must be directly involved, he said.

“The science of giving something back is going to be just as important as the science of profit,” Peck said. “Green energy without green jobs just won’t work, and we’re really seen nothing so far.”
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Dan Ray is a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

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